Some readers of Proust

El Lissitzky, Yingl tsingl khvat (The Mischievous Boy), 1919


Art criticism as subject formation

This article is an attempt to think about art criticism in terms of the constitution of the subject. I.e; what is sought in this intervention essay is to think about reflection on art beyond its technical aspects of “scholarly” commentary. (This does not mean that approximate traits of erudition cannot be present in the proposal of art criticism as subject formation). For this I propose to interpret, the interpreters of the writer in the literary field who was most impacted by art – the plastic arts in particular.

Proust's narrator, Marcel (here following the distinction made by Derwent May in his essay) was an exegete of art without making use of the “theoretical” tools of salon specialists. He was a reflective and introspective observer of the arts, denying the formal and conventional structures of snobbish and technical criticism along the way. This point we verify in Marcel's encounter with Elstir in Balbec. But then we must, before interpreting Proust's readers as a reflective observer of art, establish the art character of the whole thing. In Search of the Lost Time.


Indeed, the very narrative architecture of In Search of the Lost Time it is configured as a great fresco of French society at the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth century. The very length of the Proustian novel can only lead us to read it as a pictorially forged space. That is why George Poulet states that more than time as the essence of the novel, it is the space in which the narrative itself takes place (the Proustian space) that is decisive in the work of the French writer.

In a book with more than two thousand pages, we can describe it as an enormous artistic work in which the organizational structure would be carried out by modeling, mirroring a work of art. Let me make this clearer. Readers of Proust know that his theme par excellence is the inexorable passage of time; we can say that the time lost is the main reason for Marcel's (Proust's narrator) anguish. That's why In Search of the Lost Time It is a novel of great length, because that is the only way we perceive the disturbing passage of time: from when the narrator, still a child, goes to his room and waits for his mother to kiss him good night until the last party he appears at, in which all the characters who composed the narrative are present with their physical aspects disfigured.

In this way, the structuring of the narrative as a portentous artistic panel painted with extreme care and detail is what makes the aesthetic unity of the novel possible, so that we remember at all times that we are reading the reflective and critical path of a character and in the same space. of contingent experience. It is what Deleuze calls the sign of art as a necessary condition for the existence of other signs – the sign of the world, the sensitive sign and the sign of love.

So: it is not by chance that the theme of the work of art and how to constitute it from its own existence is decisive for Proust and he parades throughout the novel: painters, landscapes, architectural monuments and aesthetic plots. That said, we can move on to the readings of Proust's interpreters in the art-literature key. After this reading, I present a light interpretation of the narrator's aesthetic relationship with Elstir, who is the figure of the painter with whom Marcel engages in sentimental and subjective interactions.


Topically, I selected four authors to think about art critic as formation of the subject through the In Search of the Lost Time. I selected Derwent May, Adorno, Gilles Deleuze and Brassaï. (There are also two other authors who thought of Proustian work in the field of the arts: the playwright Samuel Beckett with his Proust; and the art critic and professor of literary theory at Unesp Aguinaldo José Gonçalves and his The Moving Museum: the sign of art in Proust). In the four interpretations, we will try to apprehend the constitution of the subject (reflective and critical…) via art criticism, and then we will check, briefly, what we achieved with this reading.

The fundamentals of Derwent May's interpretation or reading (Cf. Proust. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001) is the subjective interaction between the merely contingent of the existential experience of the narrator, Marcel, and the muses of truth: philosophy and art. To mean; once Marcel's Proustian narrative is impacted (Benjamin's shock theory) by the outside world and its unstable contingency: the truth of interiority as a future possibility of happiness is given by the work of art.

Thus, the eventuality of art allows its observer an instantaneous “stability” in the world. Even if this eventuality of art is a mere irruption in finitude, it allows individuals to have significant moments of reflection – about their own instantaneity. This is how the subject forms himself as a critic of the linear time that passes.

The Adornian interpretative framework (Cf. Museu Valéry-Proust. In: Prisms. Ática, 1998.) moves in another direction, even though the conformation of the subject remains a decisive status. In Theodor Adorno's dialectic, the observations of the art critic Marcel are constituted as associative structures with a double configuration. While for Valéry the space of museums and galleries represented spaces of superficiality because they acquired the merely informational, thereby decreeing the defeat of erudition, for Proust museums are associative symbols of the reflective caesura on the one hand, and they are constitutive elements of consciousness on the other. .

What Adorno is telling us through his reading is that art for Proust establishes itself as the flow of subjectivity: whether in the instantaneous cessation of delight inside the museum; whether in the dimension of art as an internal composition of consciousness itself from the museum device. It is important to say that for Adorno's interpretation, Proust's vision in its double associative configuration has the characteristic of thinking about museums, that is, art from the perspective of man, something subjective, and not from the perspective of the thing itself as in Valéry.

In his important essay on Proust, Deleuze (Cf. Proust and the Signs. Forense Universitária, 2003) registers that the formation of the subject presents itself as the narrative development of signs; if in Deleuzian interpretation the iterative flow of selected signs are vital to the plot of the novel, that is, the signs of the world, of the sensible and of love are what weave the course of Marcel's contingent temporality, it is the sign of art, the sign of artistic observation, which transforms other signs into a learning platform, making them intelligible to the reader of In Search of the Lost Time.

Deleuze, in his essay, wants to lead us to the perception that it is only through the sign of art that the temporal instants of other signs gain existential meaning and can be rediscovered by the narrator: in this case of Deleuzian reading, an important aesthetic paradox emerges, insofar as it is in the essential immateriality of the work of art that material signs can achieve intelligible unity and make subjects recognize themselves as such. In other words: it is the absolute spirituality of the sign of art that makes Marcel's narrative corporeity possible throughout the In Search of the Lost Time.

This brings me to Proust's fourth reader. What does the reading of Brassaï reveal to us (Cf. Proust and Photography. Jorge Zahar Editores, 2005) about the photographic modality as an art form that enables the formation of the reflective subject? The photographic work of art, photography, shows the subject the latent image of a life story. An important comment in this regard is that photography, according to Brassaï, has always been part of Marcel Proust's life, occupying a prominent position in the author's aesthetic and novelistic conceptions. Well, photography as a work of art has the condition of capturing the external world in its space-time moment.

Photography for Proust is the possibility of the external being reduced and, with this, to make explicit the details of a life that was gone in its narrative entirety. Marcel Proust was always aware that photography would contribute to revealing details of a life that would be diluted in the latent and distant set of our relationships: thus, the experience of photography is an essential platform in the formation of the reflective subject since it “transforms attentive observers and analysts into meticulous” ordinary individuals.

What have we learned from what has been exposed so far? What configured the interpretations of Derwent May, Adorno, Deleuze and Brassaï concerning the work of art in the In search of lost time as subject formation? What we can apprehend is that from the four interpretations we verified, an aesthetic alphabet emerges that, when learned and experienced by individuals, makes subjectivity sparkle in the finiteness of time – it is as if art, non-technical art criticism, by throwing individuals into the contingency of the beautiful established them beyond time and beyond space: transforming them into singular and reflective subjects as such. (There is a dialectic of non-identity there.) We see this in Marcel's feeling when he finds himself in Elstir's room in Balbec, that of being positioned beyond time and beyond space giving life to his subjectivity in front of the painting of “Miss Sacripant”. What Marcel finds in the room de Elstir and em Elstir as a symbol of art?


Indeed; Marcel finds in Elstir's room in Balbec the “Miss Sacripant" [1]of October 1872.

Says Proust via Marcel when he poses aesthetically in front of “Miss Sacripant”: “I could not contain my admiration”. Elstir will tell you later – “[…] It is a fantasy […]”; Marcel asks – “And what happened to the model?”; These words of Marcel startled Elstir. For Sacripant's identity was defined, even for someone like the Balbec painter. But the character-narrator of the In search… gives progress in the plot inciting an interrogation with the masculine noun “[…] model” (Cf. To the Shadows of Girls in Flower. Globe, 1992).

Marcel's delight is due to a phenomenon of perception that could be interpreted as the opposite of the possibilities of constituting the subject via art, or art criticism. Aesthetic admiration does not appear because Rascal it represents well-defined beautiful traits of a young French woman – traits of delicacy, of refinement, of fashionable clothing, of angelic naivety. It is the contingent latency of ambiguity that captures Marcel's attention as he stands before “Miss Sacripant” in Elstir's room at Balbec.

It is the sensitive indefinitions that transmit images that are fundamental for the formation of the subject Marcel; What is Sacripant's gender? What does your lips indicate, erotic seduction or childishness? Why hold a hat in your left hand when you have one on your head? Let's look at the materials of the hats… If Sacripant represents the aesthetics of naivety, what does the cigarillo typical of a cabaret character indicate? What matters more in the interpretative structure of Elstir's work, the rusticity of the velvet jacket (black) or the fragility of the white bib with frivolous pleating?

Finally, who answers these questions, who resolves these ambiguities in the painting (or portrait)? “Miss Sacripant”de Elstir is above all Marcel himself and the non-identical immanence of the work of art. It is up to us to “imitate” Proust and Marcel, especially in a moment of sedimentation of “natural” identities: our ambiguity in the face of “Miss Sacripant” it has to be resolved, if we have to solve it at all, by ourselves as subjects and subjectivity in a constant process of formation, action (politics) and criticism.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


[1] About Miss Sacripant see note 85 of the volume In the Shadows of Girls in Bloom, especially in the 3rd revised edition of 2006, published by Globo.


See this link for all articles